This article was originally published in A Short History of the Theatre. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 186-9.

IT was upon native material such as The Four P's and similar interludes that English comedy was built. It is plain, however, that there was need of design, or form, which would enable writers to shape the story material more effectively. This element of design was supplied in England, as elsewhere, by the classic models. While there was not much first-hand acquaintance with Greek plays in England, yet there is record of the Plutus of Aristophanes being given in the original before Queen Elizabeth. Latin, however, both as a language and literature, was more familiar. Scholars of the universities read Terence and Seneca for the purity of their style, and often enacted their plays, giving them in Latin. When the twelve lost plays of Plautus were restored to the world, they were immediately added to the repertory of the academies and universities. The Girl of Andros, by Terence, appeared in an English translation late in the fifteenth century, and was reprinted three times during the sixteenth. Translations of the Seneca plays began to be issued about 1560, and of the Plautine plays a little later.

Nicholas Udall, author of the first native comedy, prepared from Terence a book of Latin recitations designed to be used as a reader; and about the middle of the sixteenth century an unknown writer produced Jack Juggler, a one-act piece "for children to act," which was avowedly an imitation of the first act of the Amphitruo of Plautus. Though in structure this piece was an imitation, yet the people as well as the scenes are Elizabethan English.

Classic influences, however, came not only from a study of the originals, but also through European imitations, especially those of Italy. The fashionable youth of England went to Italy for culture and finish. To almost every department of Italian literature great names had been added -- names which were nowhere else paralleled; and the works of these authors were almost immediately put upon the market in England. The drama of Italy, as has already been pointed out, was a peculiar blend of Seneca, Terence, Horace, and Aristotle. It is not surprising, therefore, that by imitation and adaptation a powerful classic school of drama arose in England. One of its first representatives was George Gascoigne, who made two translations of Italian plays: Ariosto's Suppositi (incorrectly called The Supposes) and the Jocasta of Dolce, produced in 1566 by the Gentlemen of Gray's Inn, a group to which Gascoigne belonged. The first of these, so far as main plot and characters are concerned, is founded on The Captives of Plautus.


The name of Nicholas Udall (born about 1505) is famous as the author of the first English comedy. He was a Protestant, a student at Oxford, headmaster at Eton, and later at Westminster School. While at Eton he encouraged the production of plays in Latin, and without doubt he mastered the details of plot construction by studying Plautus and Terence. It will be remembered that in Miles Gloriosus, by Plautus, the chief character is the bragging soldier who told amazing tales of his exploits in foreign lands, made love to every pretty woman, freely offered to fight when there was no one to take him up, and fled when there was any sign of danger. It was a reincarnation of Miles Gloriosus whom Udall introduced to the English stage about 1535 in Ralph Roister Doister, the first comedy in the English language. Like the classic plays, it was arranged in the five-act form, with the proper preparation, climax, and close. The air of restraint, order, and intellectual grasp of the material is classic, but the style is homely and original. The time is limited to one day, the scene is the usual Roman comedy scene of a street running before several houses; but the characterizations, the brand of humor, and the general attitude toward life and affairs is English to the core. Doister has a parasitic and unscrupulous companion, Matthew Merigreek, who is in part the scoundrelly valet of the Italian commedia dell' arte, and in part the Vice of the medieval stage. The old nurse, Margery Mumblecrust, stands not only as a somewhat new character, but as the progenitor of a long series, the most famous of which is the Nurse of Juliet. Symonds comments upon this play as follows: "In Ralph Roister Doister we emerge from medieval grotesquery and allegory into the clear light of actual life, into an agreeable atmosphere of urbanity and natural delineation."


The second example of pure native comedy is no less interesting than Schoolmaster Udall's play, though for a different reason. Gammer Gurton's Needle was performed at Christ's College, Cambridge, about 1566, and is attributed variously to Dr. John Still, Dr. John Bridges, and William Stevenson. Like Ralph, it is in five acts; the action takes place within one day, and the scene is the conventional street with houses. Beyond these details, Gammer owes nothing to the classic model. It is a lusty farce, with very little plot. Gammer Gurton has lost her needle, and Diccon the Bedlam, who has been loafing about the cottage, accuses a neighbor, Dame Chat of stealing it. With this incident begins a scandalous village row, in which the parson, the bailie, the constable and most of the neighbors one by one become entangled. The original trouble is lost sight of in the revival of old quarrels and hidden grudges. The neighbors come to blows, and confusion seems to reign, when a diversion is created by Dame Chat's finding the needle in the seat of the breeches of Hodge, the farmhand.

Gammer is often coarse and vulgar, with buffoonery of the slapstick variety, with no polish or intricacy of plot to tempt the intellect. It would be a morose person, however, who in good health could entirely withstand its fun. The characters belong to the English soil and have English blood in their veins. Diccon of Bedlam, who is in reality the cause of the whole fuss, is a new figure on the stage. When, under Henry VIII, the monasteries were broken up, there were left without home or patrons many poor, often half-witted people who had been accustomed to live on the bounty of the religious houses. These people became professional beggars and vagabonds, sometimes pretending to be mad in order to be taken care of. They were called Bedlam Beggars, Abraham Men, or Poor Toms. It will be recalled that Shakespeare used one of this class with considerable tragic effect in King Lear.

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